(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The protagonist of “In the Cage” is a young woman whose identity is never revealed by Henry James, thus reinforcing the very anonymity of her status in life: She works in the post-and-telegraph cage of Cocker’s store in the Mayfair section of West London. From the outset, James makes clear two facts about her personal life. First, she has grown up and still lives in relative poverty. As a consequence, she does not look kindly on the many idle rich who come to Cocker’s day after day to send telegrams.

Second, she is engaged to a grocer named Mr. Mudge. He is a most caring, decent man; he is, however, also dull and pedestrian. She does not encourage him as he sets forth tentative wedding plans. The principal reason for her reluctance to marry has to do with her fascination with the upper-class patrons of Cocker’s. For some time she has carried on a love/hate affair with them—in her mind. She knows that these privileged people are boring and profligate, and often engage in illicit liaisons. Although she has confided to a friend that she sees them as “selfish brutes,” she is driven by a genuine fascination with them. Like many of James’s characters, she is an inquisitive person: She has to know what is going on in their lives. When she waits on them, she sharply scrutinizes them; she carefully listens to their conversations; and she quickly memorizes their telegrams. From these gleanings, her hyperactive imagination is quite capable of rendering for her in most dramatic fashion their current anxieties, intrigues, and crises.

When she encounters at Cocker’s a Captain Count Philip Everard, a smiling, handsome aristocrat, she makes a quantum leap from simply immersing her acute imagination in the affairs of her wealthy clientele to becoming a part of their lives. From the beginning, she understands that he is what she has been waiting for. (In an ancillary way she is also caught up in the life of a patron named Lady Bradeen, who has some kind of shadowy connection with Everard, although her eventual single focus will be on him.) Not only can she re-create Everard’s romantic life with all of its selfishness and immoral behavior, but now—from her modest position as telegraphist—she also will be able to do him eager service in whatever humble way she can. Her imagination wills her to believe that Everard needs her, depends on her advice, and is singularly attracted to her.

“In the Cage” moves toward its climax when the protagonist wants to expand her connection with the captain beyond the confines of Cocker’s. To that...

(The entire section is 1051 words.)